Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Hitting the comic stores in Tokyo: April 2013

Well, I gave it a try.  As soon as I hit Tokyo for an important business errand, I went to Monster in Ebisu.  They had a very few new comics, some back issues that were all from this year and a small selection of graphic novels and trade collections.  Despite not finding a huge wall of comics, I still managed to spend 8,100 yen.  I bought as many Boom! Studios Peanuts as I could find-- Peppermint Patty in dress?-- plus the second and third issues of Marvel's Fearless Defenders and two issues of Dark Horse's new Star Wars ongoing, along with some other books I probably never would have bought save for desperation.  Monster has some 200 yen issues, but most comics will cost you between 420-480 yen or so.  That's nothing unusual for Japan.

Monster was a very cool shop to hang out in even if the comic book selection was pretty slender.  It's easy to find, only a minute or so from Ebisu station-- right on the Yamanote Line, so there's no chance of getting lost-- and the store is absolutely jam-packed with superhero and movie toys.  They seem to specialize in Star Wars but they had a lot of DC and Marvel action figures and statues, plus all kinds of other neat little items.  This stuff isn't cheap, but Monster is worth a stop if you're jonesing for little Luke Skywalkers (or that mega-expensive two-figure 1/6th scale Bespin Luke from Hot Toys; he was in stock), die cast metal Batmobiles or plastic figures of Wonder Woman in her new costume.  Or if you just like looking at such things.  I was hoping they might have the new Dani Moonstar action figure, and while they did have others from that series (with her picture on the back of the package), she was nowhere to be found.  Heartbreaking!

The customers were nice, a mixed crowd of young men and women, some parents and their little kids browsing and having pop culture fun.  I also found the staff very pleasant.  Big smiles and arigato gozaimashitas to seal the deal.  I had a great time there, and I can't say I was disappointed not to find a massive selection of new and old comics.  I didn't have much expectation of that in the first place.  Still, I'll be making regular visits to Monster when I go to Tokyo.  It beats hauling my butt all the way to Akihabara to see the same things, plus there are a lot of intriguing restaurants on the same street.

With Blister closed for the weekend, my only other choice was to find Manga No Mori in Ikebukuro.  This proved an exercise in frustration.  I finally located its former location, which is now a K-Books Men's.  They sell those plastic statues and artwork of cutie-pie nearly-nekkid anime/manga girls.  Kind of ironic, when one of the draws of Manga No Mori was its reputation for catering to female customers.  I didn't expect to find any Cass there-- another shot in the dark-- but I had hoped to find the store at least.  Since I'm not into the kind of stuff they sell, I didn't linger at K-Books Men's.

Speaking of catering to female comic customers, visiting the huge Animate in Ikebukuro was a highlight.  First of all, just look at it!

That is one mammoth slab of comic book fun.  Are there comic book shops this large in the United States?  I tend to doubt it, and I doubt if there were they'd be as crowded as Ikebukuro's Animate shop.  Just the line for the elevator made it seem like an amusement park attraction.  I opted for the steps.

I didn't take any photos inside because I thought it would be rude, but there were plenty of people inside who had no qualms about snapping away.  Now I'm thinking it was a missed opportunity.  I mean, this place was just bustling and the lines for the cash registers on each floor made looking at merchandise difficult, like trying to watch a baseball game through a wooden fence.

And yes, most of the customers-- but not all-- were women and girls.  A very bright, cheerful environment and as many comics about boys kissing boys as you could read in a lifetime.  All in Japanese, of course.  There is a floor for guy comics, too.  And a section with manga-making supplies like paper, pencils, all kinds of ink pens, comic-making computer programs, color markers and more.

I'd read many times about Otome Road, the girly version of Akihabara.  Having experienced the dude side in Akiba a few times, I was curious to see how the other half lives.  Well, I must be an idiot because I couldn't find it.  Others who are smarter than I am have had better luck and you can read about their happier experiences elsewhere.  I'm more than a little disappointed I didn't get to visit any cosplay shops there, but if you look at my last photo you can see a brown van parked just in front of the main entrance of Animate.  That's for buying food and the young women running it might have been cosplayers.  I saw some startlingly white hair.  Just down the street was a small park with its own festival in progress.

There I definitely saw some cosplayers.  They were having a photo session.  I strolled by just to check them out.  So I suppose my story has a happy ending after all.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A postmortem on how promoters let a Blur gig in Japan slip away - The Japan Times

A postmortem on how promoters let a Blur gig in Japan slip away - The Japan Times

Well.  That's a shame.  I wasn't going to attend Tokyo Rocks anyway because I'm not a big Britpop fan in the first place.  I would have been more interested in the local groups.  On the other hand, I'm a huge supporter of music scenes in general, whatever they might be.  Hip hop, noise, punk, classical, jazz, R&B, funk, rock, pop, avant garde and any of those hundreds of other genres and sub-genres I'm too tired of typing to type.  You know what I mean.  Just because I don't buy Blur doesn't mean I dislike Blur or disapprove of your enjoyment of Blur.  On the contrary, I celebrate it.

What we all need are more opportunities to see groups.  Those we already love and, more importantly, those we have yet to discover and fall in love with.  I know I personally need more opportunities to experience live music. My show attendance is way down.

Back when I was single and living in Athens, Georgia, I probably saw a show a weekend.  Perhaps a show and a half.  I can't even remember all the bands I saw because of various chemical brain alterations I underwent just prior to each and every one of those shows, but a short list runs a little like this:

Dreams So Real
Chickasaw Mudpuppies
The Opal Foxx Quartet/Smoke (I forget which iteration, maybe both)
The Replacements
Bob Dylan
Violent Femmes (twice!)
Five-Eight (many, many times)
The Glands
The Possibilities
Harvey Milk
Jet By Day
Modest Mouse
Built To Spill

And so on.  I'm leaving out roughly one hundred.  Since I've been in Japan, my show attendance has dwindled to once a year or less.  I've seen Melt-Banana at least six more times, caught two members of a great pop-rock indie group called Toy Missile outside Shinjuku Station and went to a five-band show at Club Metro in Kyoto.  That's it.  I don't really have anyone to go with and while Hamamatsu is a musical city, the venues tend to be small and I haven't put much effort into checking them out.

So, yeah, I've been slack.  Very, very slack.  Living in Tokyo or Osaka would probably help, but I haven't been able to make that happen and now I'm getting married and it's time to settle down.  I don't want to end up being one of those people who start saying, "Yeah... I don't really listen to much music these days..." though.  Music is too important to give up.

On the mechanics of anime illustration - The Japan Times

On the mechanics of anime illustration - The Japan Times Japan has to be the top comic/animation loving nation in the world.  I have no statistics to back this up.  For all I know, it may actually be China or South Korea or even France.  But I do know comics and animation are mainstreamed here in Japan in ways denied by audiences in my native US, despite the media's discovery every three or four years that "BAM!  POW!  Comics aren't just for kids anymore!" and libraries stocking graphic novels. Publishers of super grown-up type books like Penguin Group (USA) occasionally take initiatives to broaden the appeal of comics.  And so do publishers like Scholastic for younger readers.  They offer comic books through their ingeniously titled graphic novel divisions or imprints.  And remember DC's late, lamented Minx line?  They advertised in teen fashion catalogs, which probably seemed like a great idea at the time.  Graphic novels and comics-- especially the monthly ones-- still tend to be a niche product, with a shelf or two of the most obvious titles at what few brick-and-mortar bookstores that remain in your malls and shopping centers.  People will watch uneven TV shows and go by the millions to craptacular movies based on them, but publishers have to push the idea that comics can be about anything and read by anyone.  They make huge noise whenever they do, and their best intentions still don't always pan out. While here in Japan, almost every bookstore you go to has huge comic book sections with a wide range of genre titles available. Anyway, this rant comes inspired by the Japan Times, which ran the story linked way up top there about a museum exhibition of the works of Kunio Okawara, who designed giant robots for Mobile Suit Gundam and created a phenomenon.  While I don't know a whole lot about his career, even a cursory glance at Japan reveals his pervasive influence.  The news article catalogs some of it briefly, and it's breath-taking.  I'd say a lot of what we Americans think about Japanese pop culture is a result of Okawara's work even if we've never actually laid eyes on a Gundam model kit.  If you've ever watched that South Park where they satirize Pokemon or that one The Simpsons where they watch Battling Seizure Robots or the other one where they go to the Totally Sick, Twisted, F***ed-Up Animation Festival, then you've been exposed to Okawara in some small way. What does any of this have to do with graphic novel imprints?  Eh, probably nothing.  I just wanted to show you how what in the US is considered entertainment for a specific audience is mass entertainment in Japan.  Not that everyone here sits around building Gundam models-- although a character SMAP star Shingo Katori plays on a recent TV drama does in his free time, when he's not talking to his beautiful ghost roommate (and even when he is)-- or reading comics, but in Japan, you're just much more likely to see a train load of teen girls into comics US publishers find so elusive, or run into the middle aged dude who spends a lot of money on plastic toys and isn't considered a weirdo.  It's still not cool to achieve the status of otaku, but you can indulge your geek-tooth without having to explain to people this stuff is for grown-ups, too. And that suits me just fine.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Personal reflections on the possible JET Program expansion

LDP plans expansion of JET program - The Japan Times

I didn't come to Japan via the JET program.  I gave it a half-hearted try but found one deadline had passed and the next was so far away there was no way I could get to Japan around the time I was desperate to do so.  Instead, I found an easier way through a huge conversation school chain that apparently hired everyone who showed up to its recruitment seminars.  You can figure out for yourself the company I'm talking about and read some of the horror stories of others who worked there.  I have to say my time with them was fine and dandy.  They never lied to me, paid me on time, didn't give me grief when I had to fly home for my father's passing and were gracious when I resigned.

But then, I played largely by the rules.

When you come to Japan that way, in a group hire, and you're thrown in with people in the same situation, you tend to end up in a bubble where you largely socialize with your co-workers.  I already had friends in Japan who worked independently and I've always been kind of a lone-wolf, so I popped the bubble for myself.  One guy I worked with spent a lot of time with JETs, though.  And even I met a few JETs during those crazy days.  My impression was they were all very young but a little less party animal than the people I worked with.  It would have been nice to form some friendships, but I was too wrapped up in my own things-- bowling on Sundays with other friends, monthly trips to Tokyo, girl troubles-- to put much effort into it.

Still, as a foreigner in a city with not a whole lot of nightlife and what little there is confined to a specific geographical area downtown, I kept running into JETs here and there.  They became part of the backdrop in which people I knew better and I acted out our little comedies and dramas.  Then I got to observe a JET drama firsthand.

After a year and a half of working for this conversation giant, I'd had enough.  I gave three month's notice without a plan for finding a new job.  I had this vague feeling I wanted to stay in Japan, maybe in some other city or doing something else.  But I was also prepared to go back to the States and start working in graphic design again.  Thanks to my connections I got lucky and snagged a spot with a small mom-and-pop school-- so small they only carried two foreign teachers-- in the same city I'd already been living in and had friends in.  This school proved to be paradise and I settled in for a good long stay.

My first co-worker decided to go back to university in Canada and hired a replacement and as a result, I ended up going to a party for new teachers held by a JET manager, her boyfriend.  I say manager, but I'm really not sure what his title was.  He was a nice guy, a good host but I have no idea what   JET program architecture is like.  Managers?  Supervisors?  Crew chiefs?  To hell with it.  He was in a supervisory position, and he had this party to bond with his new teachers and make them feel welcome.  I met a lot of JETs at that party.

There was, unfortunately, a cultural split in evidence at this party.  My host was more into some of those geeky aspects of Japan that so attract me, or are at least related to my interests.  I'm not that into giant robots myself, but I'm very much in favor of them.  The new arrivals... were not.

Maybe it's just me, but as the party went on, I found some of them aloof.  One was chatty.  But two of them were kind of clinging to each other as if they were shipwrecked here and in  need of rescuing instead of adventuring and taking come-what-may for a year.  I have no idea what the deal was with these particular JETs, but they exuded tension.  They complained about Japan.  They carried on a sotto voce conversation of their own within the general one.  They were preoccupied with their cellphones and text messages from the guys who declined to attend the party.  They gave me a very unhappy vibe.

Sometimes you make a decision and it's the wrong one.  Coming to Japan for a year to teach English with the ample security a government-sponsored program offers certainly has its appeal.  And a year's not all that long.  You know, unless you get here and make a bad connection with the wrong people or just end up hating the country.  If someone has been in Japan for less than a month and he or she is already complaining, then chances are coming here was a big mistake on their part.  I came away from the party thinking these two JETs were not going to make it.

Not long after, they broke their contracts and really screwed things up for this guy whose only crime was to invite them over for drinks.

All of the above might read like some kind of warning, but think of it more as a learning experience.  If you think you have what it takes, then by all means take advantage of this development and come to Japan via the JET program. You know, if this expansion comes to fruition.  Certainly, there are other ways to get here.  But the JET program has government backing, puts you into positions where you can get experience for finding other teaching jobs here.  Also, it pays you to live and work in Japan.  Just know what you're getting into.  Japan can be a difficult place to live and work if you're not prepared.  So do your research.

It helps to have a real interest in the culture here.  And if you do, don't expect your co-workers to share it.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Student seeking Kyoto flat told: No foreigners allowed - The Japan Times

Student seeking Kyoto flat told: No foreigners allowed - The Japan Times

And occasionally, this happens.  I have a lot of sympathy for this guy.  Victor Rosenhoj, a student at Ryukoku University, heard those dreaded words we can shorten simply to, "No Foreigners Allowed."  Apartment denied. This is the kind of thing that can sour a person on Japan, and understandably so.  Quite a few people come here because they love some aspect of Japanese culture, only to find sometimes Japan does not love them back.  It's almost like romantic rejection.  Heartbreak.

Even when landlords rent to foreigners, there are still a few extremely goofy elements involved that make life difficult for ex-pats hoping to settle down permanently here.  The guarantor system can even make changing jobs a huge hassle if your employer acts as your guarantor but you find something better elsewhere.  It's easy to get things completely screwed up and end up costing someone whose only crime was having good intentions a pile of money, wrecking your own career in the process.

As you probably know, I'm engaged.  I started out way to the east, in Chiba prefecture, in a company apartment.  Then I changed jobs and moved to another city.  I was very lucky to have friends able to help me through the rental process-- and yes, there were apartments I looked at online that weren't available to me because of my foreign status-- and a new boss to act as my guarantor.  All I had to do was give a thumbs-up, stamp a few documents and show up on the correct day.

Then things became a little complicated.  My fiancee moved back to Japan from Canada and we decided to co-habitate before the wedding.  My apartment was fine for a single person, but not made for two.  Incredibly, we found a two-bedroom place just across the street, in the same complex.  I still needed to pay a lot of cash up-front and inform my guarantor.  I was concerned he might end up losing money on the deal, that they'd fine him because I was breaking my lease. That's the last thing I wanted to do to the guy after he'd done a huge favor for me.

This time around, however, things were different because my fiancee handled the deal.  I'm still not sure what went down, but the only penalties paid were a month's rent and a huge charge for canceling my Internet connection.  I spent a lot of money to put us in this apartment.  The relief was in not having caused anyone else a huge expenditure or any legal issues.

Then again, I've always been lucky when it comes to Japan.  Almost everything I've wanted has come to me at some point, and I've experienced no problems finding jobs, no horrifying discrimination.  Just a couple of minor dust-ups, one involving an aggressive drunk and another that was so ambiguous I'm not even sure what happened. Not long ago the buzz word was "micro-aggressions;" I've come across a few of those-- "Can you use chopsticks?" and the like-- but I chalk those up less to prejudice or racism and more to average people desperate to say something, anything, in English and that's the best they could come up.  A cliche.  Hardly oppressive the first time, mildly annoying the one hundredth.

Life here hasn't been perfect, but it's actually been less annoying than back in the US.  If I'd butted heads with people or found a less-than-receptive audience here then I'd feel differently.  However, having had an overwhelmingly positive time here only increases my feelings for people who, through no fault of their own, run into a lot of no, no, no.  I also try to keep a balanced perspective.  No place is all good, few are all bad.  Maybe I'm just cheerfully misanthropic enough to have low expectations of most people, so they're forever surprising me in a pleasant way.  Or maybe I'm just living in my own little soap bubble, floating through the air, staring at my own distorted reflection.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Somewhere, the Japanese Homer Simpson is drooling: Mister Donut to change recipes for first time in 42 years - The Japan Times

Mister Donut to change recipes for first time in 42 years - The Japan Times

I love Mister Donut, but it's my second pick behind Krispy Kreme.  My brothers and I grew up on Krispy Kreme doughnuts.  We didn't get them often, but the HOT DOUGHNUTS light could lure even my parents into making an unscheduled stop at the Krispy Kreme store on Slappey if we happened to be driving by at the right time.  I'm a doughnut lover, and Krispy Kreme is the one by which I judge all others.  Those of you from places with your own regional brands must have your own standards, and that's fine.

Here in Japan, I suppose Mister Donut to be the standard setter.  When I first arrived here back in 2004, it was the only doughnut game in town.  That changed soon after with the arrival of Krispy Kreme's flagship store on the south side of Shinjuku Station.  I stood in those long lines to get a taste of home, and I wondered how Krispy Kreme's expansion across Japan would affect Mister Donut.

Perhaps not at all, I thought.  While students often asked me about them-- the doughnuts they referred to as "Krispy doughnuts"-- and seemed at least amused by their arrival in Tokyo, whenever they'd actually try them they usually declared them too sweet.  By contrast, Mister Donut's offerings were a bit blander, which I just figured better fit the refined Japanese doughnut palate.  There'd be ample room in the Japanese market for both the less sweet and the intensely sweet, so I thought.

Now Krispy Kreme has become well entrenched here, but I don't know if they're the reason for Mister Donut's problems and this attempted solution.  "Tastier" doesn't necessarily mean sweeter.  There are Krispy Kreme shops all over Tokyo (I can't remember how many, but you can look it up as easily as I can) and the era of two hour waits is long over.  My fiancee recently went to the Krispy Kreme in Nagoya Station and told me it wasn't all that busy.  She might have been there at an off-peak time or maybe the craze has ended.  I have been to Mister Donut here in Hamamatsu more than once in the past few months and had trouble finding a table.  These are just personal observations.  Rely on the business people to know how their own companies are doing.  Maybe both stores are doing each other in.  I hope not.

I need my doughnuts.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Tough guys don't dance... and apparently, neither does anyone else in Japan these days

Well, not exactly.  This is the first I've heard of this-- the police in Tokyo are cracking down on laws that make it illegal to dance after midnight.  Not just in Tokyo.  Read the article and the comments on the Japan Times website:  What's with the police purge on dance clubs? - The Japan Times.  Then come back here for a moment or two and let me bore you half to death with a few words on the subject.

Like the appendix, the little toe or network television, these laws are vestigial remants of the past.  I'm sure they served a purpose at one time.  Now they serve another and you can decide for yourself whether that purpose is over-reaction or a necessary measure.  This concerns me because I like to hit live venues from time to time.  And while I haven't been to a dance club in Japan in quite a while-- mostly because I haven't found one to my particular liking-- I hate to think the actions of a few will have such a negative impact on what's largely good, clean fun.  You know, dancing all night.  Clubbing, but not that kind that involves grievous bodily harm.

Actually, I'm not sure such a crackdown will have a chilling effect on the live music scene in Japan.  Most shows I've been to start around 7pm and everyone's out the door well before midnight.  Unless you're the kind of hardcore clubber who doesn't mind missing that last train-- the kind of person who stays out all night until the sun comes up-- you probably won't notice much difference.

It's just these scenes frequently overlap with other avenues of artistic expression like art itself or fashion, the kinds of things that have made Cool Japan a worldwide phenomenon.  Without the mingling of visual and musical arts, we probably wouldn't have had the Harajuku style scene.  I wonder, too, what effect this crackdown might have on those kids who like to practice their hip-hop moves in front of reflective store windows late at night.  I'm guessing kids still do that, or breakdance on the sidewalks after all the daytime pedestrians have gone home.  These are the things that define younger Japan across the globe.

You'd think there would be a way to put the onus on those who really are troublemakers and criminals without criminalizing a bunch of young people out for fun.  Maybe that's just too much trouble.